[Air-L] blogs and confidentiality
Shannon M. Oltmann
soltmann at indiana.edu
Wed Nov 30 21:43:14 PST 2011
I recently dealt with a similar issue for my dissertation--not blogs,
but other ppublicly available information. I worked with a research
ethicist on my campus (see http://poynter.indiana.edu/) to address the
ethical concerns in a responsible way; I thought the suggestions might
be useful for a broader audience here.
I interviewed folks involved with, or working for, the federal
government about fairly sensitive topics. Several people were concerned
about remaining annonymous because our frank discussions could have
implications for their current or future jobs, contracts, colleagues,
and so on. To address their concerns, I created pseudonyms for each
person (even if they did not explicitly ask for confidentiality) and
obscured their job titles and agencies/departments to provide further
protection. (This approach was approved by my IRB.)
My problem was that many respondents had also given Congressional
testimony and depositions and conducted interviews with the media; in
each of these publicly available instances, their real names were used.
I thought I might want to use some quotations from these sources, but
it would create a problem with confidentiality. Say I interviewed "Bob"
and used this pseudonym to protect his identity, but in another section
I used a quotation from "Bob's" Congressional testimony. Any interested
party could easily locate "Bob's" testimony online, with his real name,
thus breaking his pseudonym and creating the possibility for harmful
effects. I could solve the problem by using two different pseudonyms
for one individual (one for the interview data and one for the
testimony), but that creates additional ethical concerns--now I'm
stating/implying that I have data from two different people when there
is only one person.
To handle this potential problem, I divided my participants into
1. People who gave an interview but did not have relevant testimony. I
used their pseudonyms and did not have an ethical dilemma here.
2. People who gave no interview, but had publicly available testimony.
I could use their actual names, because I did not promise
confidentiality and their names are already connected to their
3. People who gave an interview, had relevant testimony, and explicitly
asked for anonymity. If I wanted their testimony, I would need to ask
them for permission to use their testimony and ask if they wanted two
different pseudonyms. I would have to be okay with not using their
testimony if they asked me not to use it.
4. People who gave an interview, had relevant testimony, and explicitly
said they did not care about anonymity. I should treat this group the
same as #3 above, since these respondents may not have considered their
5. People who gave an interview, had relevant testimony, and did not
make an explicit statement about wanting anonymity. I should treat this
group the same as #3 above, since these respondents also may not have
considered their public testimony.
Essentially, the research ethicist and I determined that the most
ethical approach was to clear the use of publicly available
testimony/information with my respondents. This would likely result in
me being unable to use some testimony, but it was the position with
which I was most comfortable.
As it turned out, I avoided the ethical problems altogether. Although
many interview respondents did have relevant testimony, there was not
critical information in the testimony; I was able to successfully build
my dissertation without using their testimony. I did use the testimony
from two people who did not provide interviews, and in those cases I
was comfortable using their real names.
To apply my experience to the discussion at hand: interview the
bloggers, then determine if you really, really need to quote from their
blogs. If you do, then you should ask them how they would like it to be
handled. This may not be required by your IRB or dissertation advisors
or the AIR community here, but it seems like a reasonable, ethical
approach to the problem.
Shannon M. Oltmann
School of Library & Information Science
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